There have only been seven women to serve on the North Carolina Supreme Court in its 199-year history. In comparison, 92 men have served during that time.
Closing the gender gap on the state’s highest court is a work in progress, but it was clear at an event Tuesday that the women who have already served are trailblazing a path for the future.
The Supreme Court held a commemorative ceremony honoring its seven female members as part of a series of events for its upcoming 200th anniversary celebration. Guest speakers highlighted the careers and personal lives of the justices – six of whom were there donning their black robes; the seventh was recognized posthumously.
Perseverance and the ability to juggle multiple roles in life – as jurists, mothers, partners, community members – were common threads that each woman shared. Denaa Griffin, a Raleigh attorney, told a story about current Justice Cheri Beasley in which an opponent in a campaign for a lower court seat once told Beasley that she would not have time to adequately do the job she sought because she was a mother of two toddlers. Beasley didn’t respond with anger, as Griffin said she might have expected.
“She ran her campaign and won, and she did the job and she did it in excellence, and what I got from that when she told me that story was that I could do it too,” she said. “I tell that story to other women who are either considering having children, considering having a dog, considering having a partner or a spouse, because you can do it, and there are examples of people who are doing it and doing it successfully – using their brain to make great big decisions, interpret case law, analyze facts and then going home, making dinner and making it work.”
Beasley, like her female colleagues, has made it a point of emphasis to mentor young women, and particularly young women of color, on the challenges and joys of being a jurist and the importance of caring for and making time for others in one’s roles outside of that job.
Griffin said it’s that kind of work that will help diversify the bench moving forward.
“The honored guests today, they have set out a path for us to come behind them,” she said. “It’s not a path that is set up like the sand, where the waves come in and they cover up the path – the path is set.”
Renee Crawford also told personal stories Tuesday about her mother, former Supreme Court Chief Justice Rhoda Billings, that helped to set that path in many ways.
Billings’ story started in 1951 when she was told all freshman high school girls were required to take a home economics class.
“Rhoda thought ‘Home Ec’ was a waste of her educational opportunity,” Crawford said. “She took her case to the principal, saying that she had two aunts who taught Home Ec and a mother who could teach her all she needed to know about cooking and sewing, running a household, and that she wanted to spend her credit hours on other subjects.”
The principal agreed, and Billings became the only girl in her graduating class of 1955 who didn’t take home ec. She was also the only girl in her physics class.
“While she may not have realized it at the time, the experience taught her a valuable lesson,” Crawford said. “Sometimes what appear to be rules are simply expectations or traditions that may be challenged as inapplicable to some persons or in some situations, and if confronted, reasonable authority may recognize the difference.”
There were several memorable stories told at the event – the late former Chief Justice Susie Sharp addressing motherhood and being called “Miss judge” or “Madame judge;” former Chief Justice Sarah Parker’s unique efforts to maintain relationships beyond the court; Justice Barbara Jackson being considered the most technologically advanced justice on the current bench; and current Justice Robin Hudson’s rise to the court in spite of political attack ads that aired from New York to Los Angeles.
Jenny Leisten, who works for the federal public defender’s office in the Eastern District of North Carolina, introduced former Justice Patricia Timmons-Goodson.
She started and ended her speech recognizing Timmons-Goodson’s family “because if you have ever heard any speech she has given, or any interview that she has ever done, that is where she begins herself, always.”
Her parents instilled in her the values that made her a good jurist and her own family kept her grounded. In addition to highlighting Timmons-Goodson’s many accomplishments, Leisten said she mentored countless young women across the state and gave service to the term “working mother.”
“No matter how much work she had, and there was always a lot of work, she was always there for her two boys,” Leisten said. “It meant a lot to me, as a mom myself, to see this woman working, giving so much to the state, and able to also maintain her role as a mother….You can be a wonderful jurist and have a wonderful family life as well.”
Leisten acknowledged separately that there is still work to be done on closing the gender gap at all levels of the state judiciary. She added that it was fitting that the women of the court were being honored on Equal Pay Day, which symbolizes how far into the year women must work to earn what men earned in the previous year.
“As wonderful as this is, I do hope we recognize that we’re still working on things,” she said.
The Administrative Office of the Courts released demographic data Wednesday which shows that women currently make up 34 percent of the state’s judiciary. Only 12 percent are of women of color.
Hudson, who made closing remarks at the event, also indicated there was more to be done with respect to representation of women and minorities on the court.
“There are roles to play for all of us, whether as judges in service and continuing to diversify these courts, whether as educators, or whether just as citizens to become informed ourselves and participate in maintaining this great system of justice,” Hudson noted. “We all have roles to play, so please choose as many as you want and play them well.”